A Victorian ebonised tub back armchair owned by Joseph Merrick, 'the Elephant Man'

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Lot 859
A Victorian ebonised tub back armchair
owned by Joseph Merrick, 'the Elephant Man'

Sold for £ 6,000 (US$ 8,005) inc. premium
A Victorian ebonised tub back armchair
owned by Joseph Merrick, 'the Elephant Man'
on baluster turned front legs terminating in brass cappings and ceramic castors, with slightly splayed square section back legs terminating in replaced wheels, the reverse of the seat applied with a strip of wood painted with the words: 'THE ELEPHANT MAN'S CHAIR', 76cm wide,


  • Provenance:

    Upon the death of Joseph Merrick ('The Elephant Man') in 1890, the present lot was bequeathed to Edward Charles Taylor (1869-1951), who reputedly played the violin to Merrick for his private enjoyment, and no doubt to help soothe his general pain and discomfort, while the latter was in residence at the Royal London Hospital.
    Between 1951 and 1993, the above chair was passed down to Clarence Edward Taylor, the son of the aforementioned Edward Charles.
    Until recently, this chair appeared as part of a display in the Medical Museum of the Royal London Hospital.
    The above chair itself appears to have been historically altered or modified and the cappings and castors to the back legs must have been replaced so that it would lean back at a suitably comfortable angle for Merrick.

    Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890)

    The intensely tragic and short, albeit fascinating, life of Joseph Carey Merrick began with his birth to Mary Jane and Joseph in 1862 in Leicester. Severe protrusions, lumpy, discoloured skin and painful tumours causing disfigurement started developing on the baby's body, especially to the forehead and arms, even before he had reached the age of two years old. Yet, in spite of this, most accounts of Joseph Merrick's early childhood suggest he was a happy and bright boy enjoying a typical upbringing until his mother Mary, who had also been handicapped, died when Joseph was eleven.

    One year later, the close loving relationship that he had experienced with his mother must have perhaps seemed unobtainable again following his father's marriage to a far less understanding and wholly unsympathetic woman who gave her new husband the ultimatum: "Joseph, or me". It is evident his father made the decision rapidly since the child was forced to leave school and find employment the very same year he remarried. At about this time, one of Merrick's arms had become so deformed that it was unusable, while his deteriorating condition had rendered his speech almost unintelligible and his appearance increasingly unsettling. These factors had the effect of rendering him a failure in several jobs, including a stint as a door-to-door salesman for his father's store. Typically shown no mercy for his plight from his stepmother and at the receiving end of regular beatings from his father, the adolescent must have had no choice but to leave home at the tender age of seventeen and take up residence at the grim Leicester Union workhouse.

    After a miserable four years at the workhouse, Joseph's condition had worsened so much, largely due to the growth of tumours in his throat, that he was close to death. A short time on, he resolved to save his own life by joining a successful group of human oddities and museum freaks under the tutelage and control of the music hall owner/entrepreneur, Tom Norman, once the latter had agreed to pay for the operations Merrick had been in dire need of to survive. Although quickly attaining a comfortable level of wealth while infamously on display in London as 'The Elephant Man', Joseph was eventually robbed and assaulted while in Belgium as part of a European 'freak' tour, and later deceived to give away all his money to a conman. This horrendous downturn in his fortunes caused 'The Elephant Man' to return to London in 1886.

    The same year, Merrick was encountered by Dr Frederick Treves at Liverpool train station in obvious agony from the symptoms of malnutrition and bronchitis. Dr Treves, who had already seen and probably met Joseph while he was previously 'on display' in a Whitechapel shop window, subsequently arranged and oversaw his permanent transfer to the Royal London Hospital, also located in Whitechapel. The use of the two basement rooms of this hospital, where Merrick was to remain until his death in 1890, were largely paid for by generous donations from the public following a special letter of appeal featuring in The Times written by Francis Carr Gomm, the chairman of the hospital committee. By this date it appears that the 'freak' shows so popular merely ten years earlier had fallen completely out of favour in Britain.

    Joseph Merrick lived in relative ease at this rather makeshift final abode; writing poetry; constructing playing card models of buildings such as St. Philip's Cathedral; eventually visiting the theatre and corresponding with a celebrated actress via a series of letters. However even during this last period, it appears he never escaped the experience of humiliation since he was unable, or maybe unwilling, to refuse Dr Treves from continually conducting scientific examinations of his misshapen anatomy in front of student doctors. Tragically, whenever he wanted to go outside the hospital, even if just for a short walk, he had to drape himself almost entirely in articles of clothing so as to avoid unwanted and often aggressive attention from the more ignorant members of the populace.

    Towards the end of his life, Joseph had to spend an increasing amount of time resting while his facial protruberances increased in size and other related disorders intensified in tandem. This certainly increased his pain and discomfort and ultimately led, at the age of 27, to his death in 1890 which, according to Treves, was caused by asphyxia following Joseph's attempts to sleep in the horizontal position instead of his usual seated one. The doctor's assessment countered some of the stories circulating that Merrick had in fact been murdered. And, although some uncertainty still surrounds his rather sudden demise, it seems most likely that the combined pressure from the tumours in his head and neck had resulted in his trachea being damaged beyond repair.

    Despite attracting an impressive level of celebrity and a degree of empathy in the last four years of his life, along with receiving numerous visitors from the upper echelons of London society including the Princess of Wales, by all accounts Merrick always retained his sensitivity, charm, thoughtfulness and intelligence despite everything that had happened to him and he had had to endure.

    Although, David Lynch's superb re-telling of Joseph Merrick's life in his 1980 film, "The Elephant Man", is accurate in most respects, its supposition that Merrick had suffered from neurofibromatosis has since been proven incorrect. He is now believed to have been one of the fewer than 100 people who have ever been documented as sufferers of Proteus syndrome.

A Victorian ebonised tub back armchair owned by Joseph Merrick, 'the Elephant Man'
A Victorian ebonised tub back armchair owned by Joseph Merrick, 'the Elephant Man'
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